J. F. (Jeremy) Lewis is the author of the Void City vampire novels Staked and ReVamped (Pocket Books, 2008 and 2009). A resident of Birmingham, Alabama, Lewis drew flack from the elders of his (former) church for the, ahem, adult aspects of his Void City characters and world-building. Undaunted by his ex-fellowship status, Lewis is working on his fourth novel in the series.
I met Lewis at Dragon*Con last year and cajoled him into an interview with the Daily Dragon.
Daily Dragon (DD): Mr. Lewis, this may be the first time since Dante’s Inferno that an aspiring author has had the privilege of interviewing a “sinner” with bona fide qualifications. Without naming any of the other parties, you have openly discussed the ex-fellowship process you endured for the sake of your imaginary world centered around “Void City.” What happened to your fellowship privileges and how did you come to be de-churched?
J. F. Lewis (JFL): Wow. I always feel like my answer to this question is far less salacious than people expect, but basically: it was a failure to communicate. I’d been a member of that denomination for over 15 years and a member of that specific congregation for a total of seven years. The reason I say it’s a case of miscommunication is that I was continually open and honest about my goals as an author and the kind of fiction that I write. Even in our bio in the church directory, it says that I’m an aspiring novelist. It says that I’m a gamer, too. As I was writing Staked, I even pulled one of the elders aside, long before I’d sold the book, and talked to him about the content, the language, etc. Heck, I even offered to let him read it. He said (with a smile) that he didn’t think that would be necessary. I didn’t hear anything else about it until after the book was out, and I went to OmegaCon (a first year convention in Birmingham).
As a result, I wound up being interviewed by the local news … one day later (on Sunday) I had a voice mail from the elders informing me that they wanted to meet with me about the book they’d “discovered” that I’d written and “had published and was promoting.” Discovered? I thought, but I told you guys about that … What do you mean discovered? My heart sank and it was pretty much downhill from there. They accused me of being guilty of all kinds of things, ranging from adultery (because I wrote sex scenes) to trying to teach children to curse (because they apparently think all fiction novels are aimed at children, and it contains profanity). For the record, it’s not aimed at kids. I’d think the quote on the cover would give that away, but that’s neither here nor there. My true crime was that I suddenly failed to match their mental image of what a member of that congregation should be.
Anyway, I went into the meeting expecting to have a rational discussion, but it became apparent very quickly that I was there to be corrected, not heard. One elder went so far as to tell me “in the Old Testament, we would have just stoned you” (which he later denied saying), and then another referred to me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. My brain kind of derailed. They told me that in order to avoid being withdrawn from (what most folks would call excommunicated), I needed to refuse to promote the book, stop writing that sort of thing, refuse to turn in the second book, publicly denounce the books, give back the money, and refuse any future profits. Obviously, I wasn’t going to do any of that, so they went after my wife and tried to use her against me. They basically accused her of aiding and abetting and threatened to excommunicate her, too. There were lots of meetings, and once it was all said and done, they gave me a deadline to accede to their demands. I let it pass … and they gave me the boot. After lots of tears, my wife met with the elders and, essentially, said anything and everything she had to in order to keep from being kicked out. As a result, she and the kids continued to attend that congregation for another year or so … That was a really tough year for our whole family. Some have asked if the whole thing is a publicity stunt, and all I can say to that is … I wish.
The weird thing is, I don’t think most folks understand exactly what “being withdrawn from” means. It’s less about not being allowed into the church building and more about not wanting other members’ kids to play with our kids. (Which is really tough, because their kids and our kids were friends.) I can still attend classes and services, but I’m not allowed to serve on the Lord’s Table, do a scripture reading, or give the invitation. When my wife and kids started skipping Sundays (mostly because she was having panic attacks literally to the point of barfing just at the sight of the building), we got the occasional message from members saying that they missed us and pretending not to understand the problem. It’s very passive-aggressive. It has gotten easier since my wife and kids dropped out completely. No one calls now and I got my in-house editor back. Sometimes we talk about trying to find another church in our area, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
DD: How did your writing style adjust after your “excommunication?”
JFL: I was in the middle of writing ReVamped at the time and it’s hard to say how the final product may have changed. I was unable to write for several months. For me writing can be very cathartic, but suddenly writing made me feel guilty, sad, stressed rather than helping me blow off steam. My wife temporarily refused to help edit my stuff. She didn’t even want to hear about it. It was no longer fun. Then, it’s like I was mad at the characters for a while, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there ya go. I still made all my deadlines, because I’m OCD like that.
The biggest changes probably show up in Crossed (Void City, Book 3) which comes out in January, 2011. There were some big-time Good versus Evil issues in my original concept for the book that changed. I think the priest, Father Ike, who shows up in Crossed is a lot more understanding than he might have been before the whole church thing. He’s even willing to perform a marriage for two vampires, which results in some hate crime behavior from the more fanatic members of the Lycan Diocese. But that’s not the main thrust of the book. The core of the book is still about the father-daughter relationship between Eric and Greta, as well as the whole throw down with Eric’s sire. Readers will also get the final reveal about how and why Eric became a vampire and what’s really up with his memory issues.
The Courtney family curse also changed a little, but I think the change makes it more interesting and original than it was to start with. I believe that from a reader’s standpoint, it was probably a good thing, because it took me from a fairly predictable direction to something far more satisfying and new.
DD: Did this church process lend itself to fictionalization for future writing (with the caveat that no person, living or dead, is intentionally portrayed in your work, of course)?
JFL: Maybe. I have an idea for one, but I’m not sure anyone would actually want to read it. I worked in a comic and game store for almost a decade and could write a book about that, too. It would be funny (and maybe a little heartbreaking) but it’s not something I’d write on spec. I’d have to know someone wanted to pick it up because … writing closely about the church thing and experiencing those emotions again through the eyes of a character … it would be an uncomfortable process. I can laugh about it some now, but not very loudly, if that makes sense.
DD: I’m reading Staked (quite a thrill ride, I might add), but I wonder if you’d describe what sets your vampire- and were-inhabited world apart from other fictional destinations?
JFL: Heh. So this is the part where I have to resist asking, “Really? So what do you think? Where are you in the book? Do you have ReVamped yet?” like a maniac.
To answer your question, though: For the vampire side of things, I was getting tired of vampirism as the ultimate coolness pill. A person gets turned into a vampire and suddenly they are sexy, they can dance, they have Feng Shui out the ying yang, and they start whining about every little thing in seconds.
Eric, my lead vampire, doesn’t do that. Sure he’s powerful, but his human foibles are his big weaknesses (though he does catch on fire a lot). I guess I’m more focused on the power of the individual in my mythos than some. So instead of being about bloodlines and such, vampires are more individually crafted. Being turned is like the ultimate Rorschach test. The more unique a person was in life, the more unique and powerful he or she will be as a vampire. It’s also fun to play in a world where the big war between werewolves and vampires already happened and nobody really wants another one.
For werewolves, I wanted to work with it as if the Wolf part is the real them. Setting it up so that most of the surviving lycans and other therianthropes have found religion is fun, too. The first time one of my werewolves pulled out a cross and yelled, “Back!” put a big smile on my face … hopefully on a few other faces as well.
DD: Assume that I’m a mundane character, wishing to take a walk on the wild side in Void City, what are the must-see hot spots and the essential accessories I should take along?
JFL: Gather your wits and a few choice weapons, but don’t forget your checkbook. If you get into trouble, help can usually be found … for a price. You should get a burger at Carl’s (assuming you’re foolhardy enough to go one that side of town to begin with) and tell him your order is for a vampire so (while he will charge you more) it will look and taste literally perfect. If the Pollux is open and showing Casablanca, you should go see it, because Winter has redone the theater now and it looks fabulous on the inside (and Casablanca is the best movie ever). Don’t talk to any tall blonde women though. That might be Greta and she’ll eat you if she gets bored with the conversation.
From there, brave souls could go to the Artiste Unknown or the Iversonian. The best time to visit would be during the Void City Music Festival, because vamps and other beasties aren’t allowed to feed on the unwilling during the festival. You should still avoid talking to tall attractive blonde women though, since Greta isn’t always one for following the rules. Oh, and be careful of 1964 1/2 Mustang Convertibles. One of them is likely Fang and he might eat you …
DD: I almost forgot, do I need a concealed weapons permit for my vacation in Void City and what weapons should I not leave home without?
JFL: To be honest, if you have a boatload of money, you’ll want to just contact the VCPD, ask for Captain Stacey, and see how much it would cost for him to give you an escort. If you can get him to escort you and pay for a member of the Mage Guild to run interference, you’ll be fine (excepting of course, the warnings above about blondes and Mustangs). If you can’t arrange that and can’t schedule your visit during the music festival, then you’ll want to bring a holy symbol (as long as you believe in it, it will work … even scientology stuff). Guns are useful too, not because they kill vampires, but they can slow them down if you’re a good shot.
DD: Do any of the vampires in Void City ever sparkle and if so, good grief, why?
JFL: It’s theoretically possible. Basically I’m a big believer in the whole “vampires burn” approach to vampire/sunlight encounters. But, since the kind of vampire one becomes is partially informed by what they believe about vampires, if a person were turned into a vampire having only ever seen or read Twilight …
DD: Where will you be taking us in the third installment of the Void City saga? Will any vampirized cars we might ride in there be equipped with standard safety equipment: seat belts, air bags, stakes perhaps?
JFL: Eric and Tabitha are headed to Paris to confront Eric’s sire, Lisette. Unfortunately, there is bad timing all around and while they are en route to Paris, she’s headed for Void City. That’s why I called it Crossed, because there’s a whole lot of crossing going on: double-crossing, crossing paths, crossing oceans, etc. So Greta and Talbot (and Fang, the afore-mentioned vampirized classic Mustang) wind up taking on an Empress level vampire while Eric encounters the True Immortal (as in not vampire) rulers of Europe and a big baddie I won’t give away here.
DD: I’ve heard you sometimes give out cookies to fans. Bring any with you to Atlanta?
JFL: I have no clue. My writing group does that and I only ever find out if it’s happening or not when I get into the car to ride to the con with them. I guess I could Tweet (I’m JF_Lewis) and Facebook it if I get into the car and there are cookies. Otherwise, just show up to the panels I’m on or my reading and hopefully you’ll get sugary goodness.
DD: What about “Welcome to the Void” t-shirts? Did any make their way to Dragon*Con? If not, how can I get one short of crossing over a multidimensional threshold and attending a music festival?
JFL: The bad news is that we’re actually not selling the t-shirts anymore. Blame Uncle Sam, state sales taxes, and the lack of sufficient funding to hire a full-time accountant. The good news is that we’re giving them away. We think this will be more profitable (after tax) than selling them. We’ll bring some to Dragon*Con and the first person who walks into my reading and says “Fang ate my T-shirt … Can I have a replacement?” can have one. In addition, I’ll probably give one away at each of my panels, but size selection may be limited.
Read more about J. F. Lewis and his Void City novels Staked and ReVamped at authoratlarge.com.